Stanley Glasser: Exiled South African composer whose many talents survived the shadow of apartheid

Forced to flee his motherland in 1963, ‘Spike’ continued to show his deep love of African music and culture and became a pioneer of electronic music during a prolific career

Kenneth Shenton
Monday 05 November 2018 14:36 GMT
Glasser in February 1963 with jazz singer Maud Damons in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, shortly after the couple had fled South Africa
Glasser in February 1963 with jazz singer Maud Damons in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, shortly after the couple had fled South Africa (Getty)

Having fallen foul of the apartheid laws in his native country, Stanley Glasser, who has died aged 92, was part of that hugely vibrant émigré community who contributed immensely to the broadening and enrichment of British cultural life in the latter half of the 20th century.

While initially lauded as South Africa’s first electronic music composer, his parallel activity as an ethnomusicologist, particularly among the Pedi and Xhosa tribes of the Northern Transvaal and Transkei, never ceased to inform his own extensive creative oeuvre. Later able to return occasionally to the republic, happily he lived long enough to see what his native homeland could become.

The elder son of a local entrepreneur, the family being first-generation Jewish immigrants to South Africa from Lithuania, Stanley Glasser, universally known as Spike, on account of his passion for long-distance running, spent his formative years in Johannesburg.

There, educated at King Edward VII High School, he then went on to take a degree in economics at Witwatersrand University.

After a brief spell in commerce, he first came to England in 1950. Here he studied privately as a composition pupil, initially with Benjamin Frankel, and then, from 1952 onwards, with the Hungarian born composer and teacher, Matyas Seiber.

Quickly attracting critical acclaim was an early orchestral work, “Sinfonietta Concertante”, awarded a prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society Prize in 1952. The following year, written for orchestra and chorus is The Vision of Nongquise, a setting of verses by fellow exile and regular collaborator, South African poet Adolph Wood, vividly illustrating the true yet tragic story of the Xhosa tribe. Fifteen years later, Wood and Glasser combined again to compile and edit their extensive collection of the songs of South Africa. In the interim, undertaking further study at King’s College between 1955 and 1958, Glasser was awarded the George Richards Prize when earning a first in the Cambridge Tripos.

Subsequently returning to South Africa, while becoming a lecturer at the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town, Glasser quickly established himself at the forefront of the nation’s musical life. Amid composing jingles for radio and a full length musical, Mr Paljas, he contributed several numbers to the first African musical, Todd Matshikiza’s King Kong, starring Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, of which he became musical director. Likewise, his incidental music for Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones made him South Africa’s first electronic composer. In 1961, Glasser created The Square, the nation’s first full length ballet score.

However, two years later, his relationship with the black jazz singer Maud Damons – long an open secret – fell foul of apartheid’s notorious 1950 Immorality Act, the couple forced to flee the country. Eventually arriving back in London, Glasser first taught evening classes at Goldsmiths College before, in 1966, becoming a lecturer. By the time he retired some 22 years later he had built up the music department to become the largest in the country. Six years were spent as dean of the School of Humanities and Performing Arts before, in 1990, he was appointed professor of Music. Today, the Stanley Glasser Electronics Music Studios remain a fine memorial to this often revolutionary pioneer.

In addition to his many academic responsibilities, Glasser also made his mark as a composer. Here, one of his most popular works proved to be the early spirited setting of words by Lewis Nkosi, Lalela Zulu (Listen to Things Zulu), created especially for the King’s Singers in 1977. For the same vocal combination Glasser created Lamentations (1994), a stunning essay in choral sonority. Glasser and Nkosi would combine again on the choral cantata, The Chameleon and the Lizard (1971). No less distinctive was an eight-part setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, both commissioned and recorded by the Choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor. For them he also wrote the biblical drama Ezra, first heard at the 1999 Windsor Festival.

If there is one thing that makes an immediate impression about Glasser’s vocal writing, it is the close bond between emotional sentiment and music content. Nowhere is this more apparent than in song cycles such as Memories of Love, seven songs for counter tenor and arch lute, or Exiles, a further setting of five songs for tenor and harpsichord, yet again to words by Adolph Wood. Written for Michael Goldthorpe who gave the first performance together with Martyn Parry, at Goldsmiths College in December 1981, this highly intense biographical work involves some 27 different sets of 12-tone series. It shows the composer at the very height of his powers.

The directness that pervades so much of Glasser’s vocal music remains a prime feature of his extensive instrumental output. Both the early Four Inventions for Violin and Viola and the Concertino for Violin, Oboe and Strings remain tripartite neo-classical essays subtly tinged with serial technique. Likewise the technically challenging Piano Concerto. In contrast, A Little Concerto for School Orchestra shows the composer for once relishing the limitations imposed by circumstance. Sadly neglected is the powerful Lament for a Warrior for Wind Band. Exploring new directions the work is cleverly and precisely imagined, its structures handled with fluence and care.

A longstanding affection for his adopted locality undoubtedly influenced a number of distinctive works. In 1971, to celebrate the centenary of Goldsmiths College, came the ebullient choral cantata Zonkizizwe (All The People), mixing English, Zulu and Afrikaans. Fifteen years later, to honour the 150th anniversary of the University of London, he produced the highly idiosyncratic Out of my BL Mini, inspired, so the composer said, by journeys to university meetings. In 2000, for the meridian borough he created The Greenwich Symphony, a four-movement work for orchestra and voices. Commissioned by the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich, it was there that the composer liked to relax.

Having, in 1995, compiled an extensive compendium, The A-Z of Classical Music, he subsequently turned the vast part of the volume into a 52-part series of weekly radio programmes which he himself narrated every Monday evening on Classic FM.

Becoming chairman of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain in 1975, he also served as a member of the International Society for Contemporary Music, was a trustee of the Rural Education Fund and an adviser to the Higher Education Funding Council of England. His input and expertise also proved pivotal in the successful development of the Kuwait National Council of Arts and Letters.

He is survived by his second wife Elizabeth Marianne Aylwin, and their children, Daniel and Simon, and by Adam and Sue, the children of his first marriage to Mona Vida Schwartz, which was dissolved in 1965.

Stanley Glasser, university lecturer and composer, born 28 February 1926, died 5 August 2018

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